Stressed? Just throw a good old-fashioned tantrum.

Yesterday I woke up cranky. Perhaps a smidge beyond cranky. The usual start-the-day-right rituals, wash face, make coffee, journal, do yoga, meditate made it as far as the journal. By the time I’d written a few sentences trying to get to the source of my dire mood I was so antsy and agitated I couldn’t sit still.

That state is rare for me – like once-every-twenty-years rare – and the usual methods of dealing with small irritations weren’t working.

I got up from my journaling chair and paced. It felt as though the house couldn’t contain all my roiling, boiling energy. I had to escape. I grabbed my phone and sent a quick message to Ketut. Do you have plans today?

The reply was instant. No plans. You have?

I’m stressed. I want wind in my face. I want adventure.

Ok. What time?

Now.

One of the many things I love about the Balinese people is their passion for gossip. We’d barely straddled the motorbike when Ketut said, Why you have stress? I was only too happy to vent my wrath to the back of his helmet, yelling my grievances: drought, heat, politics, monkeys, my friend with cancer. He nodded his understanding while navigating the insane Ubud traffic. When I stopped for breath he asked more questions plumbing for details, anything juicy.

It was during one of those breathing moments that I realized what was happening. I was speaking Indonesian and the vocabulary to describe emotions, frustrations, the craziness I was feeling wasn’t translating well from English. The words I pulled in to communicate my bizarre state of mind changed the story. My rant sounded silly, even to myself. I wondered how Ketut was hearing it. The image of a naughty child in full-on tantrum mode flashed before me and I exploded into laughter.

Ketut’s helmeted head swiveled as he ventured a curious glance over his shoulder.

Ya? You okay? That made me laugh harder. Was I okay?

Okay? I repeated, my heart pumping pure gratitude for this friend. Yes. I’m finished now. No more complaining. Thank you for listening. It’s your turn, Ketut. How do you feel today? Is your family good? Is your garden planted?

I knew what he would say – could have mouthed the words with him: Ya. Good. Same same. There was a pause as landscapes I hadn’t noticed to this point rushed past. I sucked lungs full of clean air and feasted on the glorious greens of paddies and jungle – and waited.

I’ve learned a bit about Ketut over the years. He’s a great listener but given the opportunity he’ll tell me just about anything. I was hopeful. Then, Maybe I borrow cow, he said and the floodgates opened.

We sailed along climbing steadily toward the rice terraces of Sidemen. I sat back, clear-headed, relaxed and content to listen to Ketut’s happy prattle.

From the precipitous roadside I caught glimpses of farms spread like patchwork far below, and Mt. Agung ringed in clouds. Our destination was Warung Uma Anyar, a rooftop cafe perched on the mountain with sweeping vistas of terraces, paddies, and jungled foothills. The memory of that view had prompted my urge to flee Ubud and we were getting close.

An hour-and-a-half after leaving home we pulled off the road. There it was: the chalkboard sign out front, the smiling owner, and the sinful cup of Nescafe with fake cream and processed white sugar that I’d been craving.

Crispy kerupuk, peanuts still hot from the roasting pan, and chemical-laden coffee. Heaven! Ketut took a minute to answer emails and I morphed into a vegetative state of bliss.

Mount Agung in the background almost obscured by clouds

We snacked on peanuts and crisps and basked in the immensity of solitude. Then the food came. I’d ordered vegetable soup picturing something like the canned Campbell’s we used to have growing up and couldn’t have been more pleased when the Warung Uma version arrived.

My delight must have been evident because the man who delivered the colorful dish beamed and told us he’d worked in a big hotel for nine years. It was owned by an American and featured a Thai restaurant. He’d learned to cook everything on their menu. Then bankroot, he said.

The meal proved as tasty as it looked. Ketut and I lingered over it, chatting about the tawon that appeared to be building a nest in the roof. Ketut asked what tawon was in English. Maybe bee? I said. Or hornet? A quick consultation with Google pegged it a wasp. When we couldn’t scrape another morsel off our plates, a young man appeared to clear the table.

Bali people eat 15 minutes, Ketut said. We already eat two hours! But he seemed to approve the slower pace. When I observed he hadn’t ordered his usual Coca Cola and would he like one now, he smiled and nodded. Okay, he said.

While he enjoyed his sugary hit of extra caffeine, I studied the map. Let’s go home a different way. See? I showed him the phone. If we turn here, we can cross over to Sidemen village and take the other road. He asked me to put it on my phone. I plugged in the route and we headed off, waving goodbye to our host and promising to come back soon.

The warung was still in sight when Google sprang into action issuing orders. Right turn one-hundred meters, left turn one point five kilometers. The paved two-lane road narrowed to one lane. Left turn six-hundred meters. The asphalt was old here. Chunks were missing and what remained was potholed and lumpy.

We bumped along. A little farther on even the patchy asphalt disappeared. Then we were climbing again. The single lane became a trail of eroded, rocky gravel. We rounded a switchback. I gasped and grabbed Ketut’s shoulders. The way ahead was a vertical plunge to another sharp turn a long, long way below. My terrified croak, I’ll walk! was swallowed by the crunch of wheels grinding into the gravel. Good view, Ketut said as we started down. I shut my eyes.

By some stroke of fate (or Ketut’s expertise) we made it to the bottom, rounded the hairpin curve intact, and trundled on. The trail now was the width of a motorbike tire, a mere depression in the grass.

And then…

We’d been following Google’s instructions all the way. The map on the phone showed the road leading to a river. We were there. Water rushed wide and brown in front of us. Rice paddies stretched in all directions. But that was all. No more road. No bridge. This isn’t Sidemen village, I said.

Maybe Google not understand Bali, Ketut answered.

Definitely doesn’t understand Bali, I agreed.

We stood a few more dazed minutes. Then without a word, Ketut turned the bike around and I climbed back on. The impossible hill wasn’t as bad going up.

It was a magnificent day – the perfect adventure. There was not one single bit of it, not one fraction of a moment that I wish had been different. The wind in my face, the beauty, the terror, the food, the fiasco, and best of all, the friend who listened.

*Note: The ‘tantrum photo’ at the beginning of this post was taken by Sharon Lyon. Thanks, Sharon, for the worst photo anyone has EVER taken of me!

Mt. Agung – You’re not in Kansas anymore!

 

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I grew up with prairies, forests, and the sky-blue lakes of northern Minnesota. The earth under my feet didn’t move. Ski hills were hills. They didn’t erupt. My nervous system calibrated to this solid certainty and made assumptions.

I’d heard of The Ring of Fire – first when the scratchy voice of Johnny Cash made the song popular – and later when the Science Museum in St. Paul brought the reality of volcanoes and earthquakes to the tundra.

The IMAX film produced by the museum introduced a different world. I watched mountains spewing fire, their molten guts dribbling down like icing on a cake. I remember the shiver of terror and the thought that followed: why would anyone live there? And yet, fascination gripped me. For weeks afterwards I felt a bit off-kilter and walked around humming, “I fell into a burning ring of fire,” under my breath.

Fate takes interesting twists. Was that day a foreshadowing of things to come? Now I live in Indonesia. This nation has the most volcanoes and earthquakes of any other place in the world. I’ve transplanted my Midwestern beliefs about solid ground to a country that shivers and belches daily. What was I thinking?

For the past week, Mt. Agung, 25 miles from my home in Ubud, has been threatening to blow. There’s a side of me that has gone untested until now. I’ve never faced a looming natural disaster. Ever. In northern Minnesota the worst we had were blizzards. Roads closed, 4 – 10 foot snowdrifts piled up, and school was cancelled. Yippeee!

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Waiting on Mt. Agung is different energy. With every tremor, adrenalin floods my system. I have caffeine jitters though I haven’t touched coffee for months. And there’s an overwhelming helplessness that triggers people in different ways. Some get angry. Some rush out to stock up on food, water, flashlights. Some spring into action organizing shelters, collecting donations, working round the clock. Some cry.

I haven’t gotten angry, and I haven’t cried. But I’ve worried, and I’ve haunted the news channels as well as Twitter, Facebook, and the Indonesian government sites that dole out information in careful bites. Through it all, I’ve realized how little I’ve changed. Something in me needs to know, needs to suss out every factoid and warning. In the U.S. we get used to 24/7 reporting when disaster strikes. We expect to be fed a non-stop diet of fear and distress as stories repeat and images burn their indelible imprints on our retinas.

There’s a better way – I’m sure of it – a kinder way. Somewhere between getting ready, and having done everything I can do, there must be a quiet place in the mind to go and wait. There must be an off switch that allows silence from the clamoring voices and peace in the midst of uncertainty. In the interest of self-preservation, I’m determined to get there. The well-being of my Midwestern nervous system depends on it!

 

 

Dealing with Uncertainty

When I wrote my last post a few days ago, Mt. Agung was still just a stately presence, the highest, holiest mountain in Bali and home to Besakih, the mother temple. Right now, as I keyed in that sentence, another tremor rattled my windows and shook the floor. Holy Mt. Agung is trembling, threatening, poised to erupt – or not.

Not even the most expert of the experts can predict when, or even if an eruption will happen. They cannot foretell the explosive strength if it does blow. But over 50,000 people have been moved out of their homes on the slopes and in surrounding villages because they would not survive if…

I’m in Ubud. We’re told that here we’re far enough away. I think that’s supposed to make us feel better. The streets are teeming with visitors, more people than I’ve ever seen in this town before. They’re shopping, laughing, packing the many restaurants, and going about life as usual.

But I live here, and for me, this is not life as usual. Time hangs between tremors – between news flashes – between numbers, 3 for be careful, 4 for beware. We’re at 4, the highest these warning numbers go. I know many families that aren’t evacuating. Ketut’s is one of them. They live 10 kilometers from Agung. A 7.5 kilometer distance is the mandatory evacuation zone. I worry.

I have never had to psychologically manage such uncertainty before. It’s a helpless feeling. I’m a ‘doer’ and there is nothing I can do to change the situation. I like to imagine that I have control over my environment. I have none. Mother Nature is in charge. Meanwhile, we wait.

 

 

Aussies…pick your battles

Australians are people. I’ll have to admit, my first encounters with that unique breed left me unconvinced. All I knew about Australia I learned in 9th grade history class, and I wasn’t impressed then either. When I came to Bali they were everywhere, loud, behaving badly, at frightful odds with my Victorian morality and Scandinavian reticence.

A lot of things got shaken up when I moved to Bali, and any people group clumped together and referred to as they, tend to bring surprises when they grow individual faces with real names. It wasn’t long before I met Steve, the organizer of the Ubud Writers Group, an Aussie. Suddenly one of them had a face, and even though he was loud, behaved badly, twirled my moral compass and trampled my Norwegian sensitivities, I LIKED him. Then I met Janet, his sister, a milder version, and I knew there was hope.

It’s a process, warming up to these undiluted characters who seem to revel in the discomfort of others. It’s all in good fun and harmless if you have serious rhino skin and know how to pick your battles. But underneath the gruff and bluster, there’s generosity and a loyalty that forms deep attachments.

So when Steve and Janet invited me to accompany them, and Steve’s poodle, Princess Rina, for a pre New Year’s getaway to Sidemen, I was equal parts surprised and delighted.

From the moment we arrived and settled in, conversation flowed around and through every conceivable topic. I alternated between straining to bridge the language barrier and blushing crimson when I did. There were many occasions when I had to stop them and beg a translation of their repurposed English!

Fluffy clouds lazed across the sky all afternoon as we moved from the pool to Janet’s terrace, to the dining area, and back to Janet’s terrace accompanied by attentive staff bearing trays of alcohol. That’s another thing I noted: these Aussies can out drink me five to one, and it’s a little sad because they’re not the ones who need loosening up!

At first there was no hint of Mt. Agung, just the sweeping view of rice terraces. But as cooler air pushed up over the ridge it appeared, the highest holiest peak in Bali, through a necklace of clouds.

Somehow I’d snagged a deluxe upstairs room with an unobstructed panorama from a deck larger than my entire Ubud apartment!

Although slightly less sticky than the lower altitudes of Ubud, the refreshing gurgle of the infinity pool beckoned so we stationed ourselves for deep relaxation and more liquid refreshments.

After cocktails, liquors, and nighttime chocolates (we did eat dinner at some point) it was lights out with the plan to meet for breakfast at no specified time.

I’m an early riser. Catching the view of sunrise over Mt. Agung was ample inspiration to set my alarm for 5 a.m. just to make certain I was fully awake by showtime. I’m also directionally challenged, so as I fixated on the emerging purple outline of the giant mountain, the sun quietly rose somewhere to my right. Orientation miscalculations aside, the reverence and awe inspired by the early morning vigil stuck to me for hours.

It would be easy to develop an obsessive fascination with Mt. Agung. At six in the morning it was crystal clear. By midday the clouds so enshrouded it there was no hint it ever existed.

Sometime later we hiked through the village seeking a more palatable lunch than the options available at our place. Our stroll produced new photo ops and a group of schoolboys who showered the Princess with proper devotion.

Like homing pigeons with a bead on eats, my Australian friends sussed out an exquisite site for dining pleasure at Sawah Indah Villa.

I might add at this juncture that Australian dogs, unlike their owners, adopt the cultural norms that resonate with my comfort level. They’re seen but not heard and speak only when spoken to. Princess Rina excels in the social graces and her dining etiquette epitomizes perfection. That’s why she’s allowed a seat at most establishments and we don’t patronize those that fail to appreciate her advanced evolution.

The walk back was blistering. As a hint of chlorine tickled our noses, Steve shed his shirt and shoes leaving a trail of cast off clothing on the path to the pool and plunged. Janet and I weren’t far behind. Oh delicious clear blue water!

A little nap sparked renewed appetites and we ended the day at a pizza warung. I didn’t have high hopes. The tablecloths had seen more meals than ours and were still wearing some of them. The neon green walls did nothing for our aging complexions. But hailmaryfullofgrace – omg – the PIZZA! It was far and away the best I’ve ever eaten anywhere. A N Y W H E R E !!! Three very happy bellies said good-night and sweet dreams as we trundled off to our beds.

Next morning, packed and ready to return to the crazy bustle of Ubud, I bid goodbye to the magic mountain and the peace and pleasure of a unique escape with my outrageous Aussie friends. Thanks, Steve, Janet, and Princess Rina for this stimulating cross-cultural experience in a setting of unparalleled splendor.

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And a very Happy New Year to family, friends, and all the other beautiful Australians I’ve met and learned to love here in the paradise down under!

You only think you know what you want: Lesson 2

A flyer sits in my e-mail box. It’s from a friend in Australia who holds retreats in Bali. Spring is in the air…it begins. For a hair’s breadth I think, “She needs to update her website. It’s September. Spring is in March…April latest…OH!” Whoops! Southern hemisphere, the seasons are up-side-down. She’s absolutely right, in Australia (and Bali) it’s spring.

This gives me pause. How often, I wonder, do I pass judgment based on my frame of reference?

Often.

It’s one thing to study different countries and cultures in books. It’s another thing entirely to relocate your life to a place on the opposite side of the equator from the familiar comfort zone. My understanding of how things should be is challenged daily. Two recent occurrences come to mind, ceremonies and sleeping arrangements.

Someone said that to the Hindu, life is ceremonies and everything in between is just filler.  The truth of that statement cannot be fully appreciated until it’s experienced. In my white Anglo-Saxon Protestant past, church on Sunday was the tradition. It was an hour of sitting in respectful silence and listening to the sermon with the occasional call-response or hymn to break the monotony. When the pastor said, “Go in peace, serve the Lord,” it was my signal to stop daydreaming, find the page for the last song, and make sure my legs hadn’t fallen asleep.

Not so the Hindu. Rituals are not an hour on Sunday morning. Ceremonies can last hours, days, sometimes even weeks. The priest may be ringing his bell and chanting Sanskrit prayers but men and women continue to gossip and laugh and virtually ignore him.

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At first I’m appalled. What disrespectful people! How can they offend the priest like this? Why doesn’t he say something? All the while I sit piously, hands folded in my lap, paying rapt attention. But the holy man never appears to be offended and as soon as he finishes he joins in with his own jokes and good humor.

I’m an expert at imposing assumptions from my narrow experience on a culture that doesn’t share that experience. Their reverence is shown in ways that I’m only beginning to understand. But I’ve taken note and I’m loosening up.

Yesterday posed a different problem, however, and I tried to play the I’m-not-Hindu-so-that-doesn’t-apply-to-me card. It had to do with the orientation of my bed. The Balinese are adamant about sleeping arrangements. The bed must be positioned so one’s head points either east or south, and I’ll qualify that by saying it depends upon where a person lives on the island in relation to Holy Mount Agung. In Ubud, Agung is to the east. Because of the configuration of the bedroom, however, I want the head of the bed on the west wall.

“Not possible,” says Ketut.

“I know, I know,” I gear up to hold my ground. “But I’m not Hindu so it’s okay for me.”

“No good,” he continues. Impatience rises up at his inflexibility on this topic but I try to reason with him.

“Look, if I put the wardrobe here on the short wall, and the bed here, it’s easier to get to the bathroom. Otherwise too crowded.”

“Ya, but no good.”

I want to say, Why not, dammit?! But instead I offer a meek, “Why not?”

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“Machine. Too much noise. No sleeping.” For a few brief seconds I try to make sense of how a machine has worked it’s way into this spiritual conversation. Then it dawns. The neighbor’s washing machine is directly behind the west bedroom wall. An early morning spin cycle, a little off balance, would be sleep disturbing. I feel the defeated grin spreading across my face as I shake my head.

“Why do I even argue with you?” It’s a rhetorical question, but Ketut has the answer.

“Maybe you forget machine,” he says.

 

 

 

 

 

A Violent Spirituality

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The 17,000 islands that form Indonesia are located in the Pacific Ring of Fire. They’re peppered with volcanic mountains and shudder under frequent earth tremors.
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pulaweh

 

This week, Paluweh on the very small island of Palu’e, east of Bali, erupted. Its incessant rumbling over past days alerted officials who evacuated most inhabitants to the nearby island of Flores. Six lives were lost.

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Even though the map lists only two volcanic mountains on Bali, there are at least six. Mt. Agung last erupted in 1963-1964. Mt. Batur in 1968. The others have been dormant for hundreds of years. Hot springs dot the calderas of these sleeping giants, and a geo-thermal plant harvests the power from fiery regions below Mt. Bratan’s crust.
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Earth’s dynamic unrest in this part of the world drives the energetic spirituality of Bali. The regions beneath the island paradise hold tremendous power. The Balinese understand, and daily tend to the balancing of energy through their rituals and offerings. They open their arms to spiritual practices from around the globe, and while the earth seethes, the air above vibrates with the hum of prayers, the movement of dance, and the ecstatic clang of gamelan.
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I’ve noticed that mindfulness is easier in Bali. Being present is a way of life. Gratitude soaks into the pores and becomes perpetual. I’m struck by the differences now that I’ve been in the States for a few weeks. Now that jet-lag has passed, and culture shock has subsided to a degree, and my emotions have stabilized, I can think logically about what it is that feels so absent, what gets in the way of connection.
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It’s the veneer. There’s a glossy coating on people in America that separates us. Maybe it’s competition, or power. Maybe it’s privilege, or sophistication, or make-up! But we’re isolated. Even walking down the sidewalk with hoards of others, we’re so alone. We are the casualties of progress, of technology, of narcissistic self-absorption.
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In Bali I don’t go 10 steps without an interaction. Maybe it’s nothing more than a taxi driver on the street offering his services, but someone has spoken to me and I have the option to respond and thank him and inquire about his day. I have the option to connect. I find I like that. I need that. And I take advantage of those opportunities. It has opened the door to a different kind of life. The taxi drivers remember. They stop offering “Taksi!” and instead say “Good afternoon, how are you today?” and we visit for awhile.
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The fragile brevity of life calls for more than just going through the motions. In the shadow of Mt. Agung, regal, serene, but deadly when aroused, there is a creative force that supports authenticity. It beckons, like these words by Rumi: “Come, come, whoever you are, wanderer, worshiper, lover of leaving. It doesn’t matter. Ours is not a caravan of despair. Come, even if you have broken your vows a thousand times. Come, yet again, come, come.”

Mona Lisa Corset and Lacy Red Bra

Abang Songan, Ketut’s village, goes about it’s ancient ways under the looming presence of holy Mount Agung. Today, a ceremony would take place here, rain or shine.

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I hopped on the back of the motorbike about 9 a.m. Monday morning. The sky brooded and at the last minute I threw my long, nylon, semi-water resistant coat into the bag. Otherwise I wore layers. The Mona Lisa corset, layer number one, hugged my ribcage. There was no way I wanted to tuck and zip myself into that chamber of horrors in front of a group of giggling pubescent Balinese girls. I knew from past experience that my change from street clothes to temple clothes when we arrived would be a group project. I was prepared. We tooled out of Ubud and headed through Tagalalang, climbing, climbing.

Pretty soon the air, heavy with un-rained moisture, turned brisk. A camisole the color of spring lilacs, the second layer of my ensemble, flashed bright underneath an unbuttoned fleece that flapped like great black wings as we sped along. A few more kilometers and I buttoned the fleece. All at once, the air let loose of its water content. Ketut pulled off the road and slid into his rain poncho. I fished out my coat and buttoned its high collar tight around my neck. I’ve never worn so many clothes in Bali! We set off again, the road slick and glistening, still climbing, climbing.

Balinese women went bare from the waist up until the government, concerned with the growing tourism industry, ruled that they had to wear shirts. But old ways die hard, especially behind the walls of a family compound. When we arrived, Ketut’s 67 years old mother, met us in her sarong and lacy red bra. The bra was on my account…otherwise she wouldn’t have bothered. I was ushered out of the rain, shivering and blue, into the all-purpose shelter. The space was filled to overflowing with offerings. Coffee and platters of food were brought for me and, one by one, family members appeared, crowding into the small space. They joked and commented on the unfortunate failure of magic to make the rain disappear.

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Trays and trays of offerings that have already been blessed at the temple, are now available for munching!

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We huddle together, waiting for the rain to slow a bit more before setting out for the festivities.

Abang Songan has traditions unlike any other village in Bali. I learned that for this special ceremony, not only do the women construct their impossibly high towers of fruits, vegetables, chickens, cakes, and so forth, but the men make an inverted version of the same. (Typically Balinese men do not make offerings.) They carry two of these masterpieces suspended on a pole over their shoulder. As the rain continued it’s postnasal drip, the offerings were shrouded in plastic and prepared for their march to the gathering place.

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Ketut, master of understatement, assured me that these weren’t heavy. But it’s like carrying 4 grocery bags full of apples and bananas! Tell me that’s not heavy!

The women carry these massive structures the equivalent of 3 or 4 blocks of muddy ruts. A superhuman effort!

The women carry these massive structures on their heads for the equivalent of 3 or 4 blocks through muddy ruts…a superhuman effort!

Once at the soccer field, the gathering place for this event, the men’s offerings were placed on racks that had been pre-constructed for the purpose and the women’s offerings were either taken to the auditorium across the street or carefully tucked under makeshift shelters.

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As the rain slowed, plastic was removed from the spectacular arrangements and the place took on a festive air.

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Families gathered under tarps and umbrellas, sitting on plastic tablecloths, chatting and waiting for the holy men to come and bless their offerings. .

About 4 p.m. the rain stopped. Hundreds of offerings had been placed under cover in the auditorium across the street where the gamelan, blessings, and prayers were ongoing. Ketut’s sister-in-law is the take-charge type and the task of managing me for the day had fallen to her. The auditorium was literally jammed with people. She saw me pointing the camera toward the gamelan musicians…”You want photo?” she asked.  I was about to say I had just taken one when she grabbed my arm and hauled me through the crowd right up to the gamelan platform. Once there she turned to me with a triumphant look on her face and gave me a curt nod, as if to say, “Well, what are you waiting for?!”

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The gamelan musicians

I was the token foreigner in the crowd. Once they realized that I liked to take photos, there were many willing to pose. Here are some of my favorites:

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Ketut’s take-charge sister-in-law with her towering offering

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Adorable! And she knows it!

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Three young boys deep in discussion

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Granny and her little tiger

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A colorful family that just wanted their photo taken

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These little mischief makers followed me around and posed numerous times!

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Total sweetness!

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Gede is the handsome chap in white on the far left. He’s standing with cousins and other family members from Trunyan, another traditional village by Lake Batur.

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I don’t want to be picked up!

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Giraffe? These animal jackets are very popular!

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Ketut and his beautiful, alert little daughter, Nengah.

The day was splendid, but the ritual I found most compelling happened at the end. Two women in white appeared carrying loops of rope. A line of girls formed behind them and each one held onto the rope. They circled the perimeter three times doing graceful movements with their free hands. Ketut said that this particular village ceremony is about starting again. I don’t know the full implications, but I embrace the concept!

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Barefoot in the muddy aftermath of rain, the women circle the area three times.

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Their hands flutter gracefully to the distant sound of gamelan

Dusk had encroached by the time we trudged back to the compound. Once again closeted with the women, Ketut’s mother helped me unwind the yards of sarong fabric, appalled that I had used safety pins to secure it, and neatly folded it back into my satchel. Ketut was ready with the motorbike. We whispered along in the softness of night, no traffic now and no rain. As the kilometers clicked away I once again experienced that familiar bubble of immense gratitude for my friend, Ketut and his willingness to share his family, his traditions, and his unique perspective on life, with this bule gila…crazy foreigner!

The Elegance of the Balinese Penjor

If I thought Bali was beautiful before, I had no idea what was in the works for the ten day Galungan celebration. Every Balinese friend I talked to spoke excitedly about Galungan and the penjor. The words had no meaning for me. So although their excitement was contagious, and even though they attempted to explain, I was clueless. As the day drew closer the energy of the island intensified. Then I got an invitation. Pasek, the manager of several properties including my house, invited me to his village for the temple ceremonies and the first day of Galungan. His village is high in the mountains and if there is a beaten track his home is significantly beyond that. I was deeply honored to be included in the special time for his family. So even though it meant another very long motorbike ride (over an hour one way) and subjecting myself to the roads that snake their way to the top shrinking ever smaller as they ascend, I eagerly accepted.

Pasek in his family temple with a few of the many many offerings

Pasek with his wife, his father, and his three children in the traditional Balinese ceremonial dress.

The experience was profoundly personal and I am grateful to have been so generously welcomed to share in the ancient practices still alive today.

On the ride to Pasek’s village on Mt. Batur, we passed thousands of penjor. I am not exaggerating…thousands! I kept exclaiming to the wind rushing past my ears, “Oh! Wow! Beautiful! Oh! Look at that one! Wow!” etc. etc.  That was yesterday. Today I straddled Ketut’s motorbike and off we went on a penjor photo adventure! He took me through village after village and stopped, waiting patiently while I walked from one glorious creation to the next, shooting, shooting, shooting.  Just by way of a quick explanation, penjor is synonymous with Mt. Agung, the highest and holiest mountain on Bali. Every single one of these gracefully arched, fancifully decorated bamboo poles is different. They are made by the family who owns the property abutting the street. There are offerings attached and there is often a little temple beside the penjor.

Penjors line the village streets

Another village…

And another…

At about 9 feet from the ground, the first work of art manifests. The following are a few examples of once again, thousands of variations on the theme.

The entire penjor is made from items occurring in nature and basic to Balinese life.

The tassels waving in the breezes high above the street are also marvelous and diverse creations.

The poles themselves are completely covered from top to bottom with exquisite woven, fringed, and looped designs that defy verbal explanation.

This one deserved a close-up…

Some of the penjors had a woven strip forming a ramp to the offering. Ketut told me these special weavings signify a family wedding.

These amazing displays remain in place for the 10 days of Galungan, then they are gone and next year, in the 11th month of their 210 day calendar, it happens all over again. The closest thing to it in the U.S. are the street decorations at Christmas. I won’t shove it down your throat, you can draw your own conclusions, but it doesn’t seem quite the same…

I’ve given you a small taste, a sweet one I hope, of the elegance of the penjor.

Come to Bali…just do it!

I have been MIA on my blog for a few days but certainly not missing any of the action in here ! So let me bring you up-to-date.

I love this sunrise walk to yoga. There is Mt. Agung, all pastels in the morning stillness. The path is embellished with intricate stone mosaics and colorful flags mark the approach. What a privilege to be able to do a yoga practice in such meditative surroundings.

This morning I was the first to arrive. It is incredibly peaceful at this hour, but someone has already been here to place offerings. An hour and a half of breath and poses later, I’m energized and ready for the day.

Today its a trip to Ubud Palace. There are many palaces in Ubud. The families who ruled in the past now have no political power but their social status is still recognized by the Balinese people.

Puri Saren Palace

These intriguing moss covered doorways are everywhere and lead from one tranquil garden to the next.

Carved figures abound, big breasted beasts with horrid teeth, winged serpents…

and just plain scary monster types like this one!

This stage on the palace grounds is ready and waiting. The gongs and xylophone type instruments are used for the gamelan music heard everywhere in Bali.

The ceilings of the buildings are intricately carved.

The most important ones are painted gold.

And there is always another pair of beautiful doors.

Walking home I pass a school where the children are outside in their sweet uniforms.

My evening is a much different experience from the day’s activities. A kirtan performance led by world famous composer and kirtan leader, Dave Stringer is happening at the Yoga Barn. The group consists of musicians and instruments from all over the world. At least 100 of us walk the candlelight path through glades of bamboo and frangipani. Entering the open-air structure we climb the stairs. Yoga bolsters are spread in circular rows throughout the space and I choose one in the front toward the edge. For the next three hours we participate in call and response chanting in Sanskrit lead by Dave and accompanied by 10 incredible musicians. These things have to be experienced. A written account doesn’t do it. The sights, the sounds, the energy, the night, the fragrant air…come to Bali…just do it!

Volcanoes and Snakes and Bears, Oh My!

As a girl I loved to listen to Johnny Cash sing Ring of Fire in his scratchy voice. The lyrics produced Faustian images in my adolescent imagination. Here in the South Pacific I am becoming acquainted with another Ring of Fire. Indonesia is uncomfortably cradled between the Alpide Belt and the Pacific Ring of Fire. The two together account for about 96% of the world’s earthquakes. The Pacific Ring of Fire is also home to 75% of the world’s active and dormant volcanoes. Bali boasts four of her own, Batur, Agung, Bratan, and Merbuk. Of the four, Batur is the most active erupting every few years. And that is the one that has all the hiking/trekking packages! Even if I had the proper gear, shoes, and stamina I don’t think I would even be tempted. The words from that Johnny Cash song, “I fell into a burning ring of fire, I went down, down down and the flames went higher.” kind of spoil it for me.

Photo of Mt. Batur copied from Bing Search Engine

Then there is Mt. Agung. This volcano is a little more stable. Only a few eruptions dating back to the early 19th century have been recorded from Agung. However the eruptions in 1963 were among the world’s largest and killed 2000 people. In spite of the ominous history there are daily tours to both of these sites and villages dot the mountainsides.

Photo of Mt. Agung copied from Bing Search Engine

Why do people want to do dangerous things and live in dangerous places? Two of my daughters (and millions of others) have chosen to reside in San Francisco at times in their lives. Those people experience regular earth tremors and yet they remain. And my other daughter lives in the jungle called New York City. Why?  The levels of adrenaline needed just to navigate the subway from point A to point B are probably off the charts.

Then there are the folks in rural Texas who encounter poisonous snakes coiled in unexpected places. Yet they walk through tall grasses and don’t bat an eyelash. A Texan friend and I were conversing one day in the 80’s. I was living in Texas then, and my friend had invited me to walk with her to see something at the other side of the meadow. “But, Karen,” my voice quivered. I  think I was trembling. “What about the snakes?”  She looked at me in disbelief. “But you’re from Minnesota,” she exclaimed and in her mind that seemed to settle the issue. I was confused, “And what’s your point?” I asked indignantly. She gave me the “Well Duh” look and putting her hands on her hips said, “The BEARS!” I guess its a matter of perspective. In spite of my superb resilience at being able to survive Minnesota bears, I did not join her on the hike across the meadow!

Photo copied from Bing Search Engine

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